Hopefully more often than not, you have experienced enormous respect for a Chair who is able to navigate a full agenda, giving time to the most important issues, making sure everyone contributes and then enabling the group to reach a conclusion and agree a way forward.

Yet running board meetings is only part of the role of a charity Chair. When things are going smoothly the many other governance responsibilities may seem relatively straightforward but as Murphy’s Law states “If anything can go wrong it almost certainly will” and so a Chair has to be prepared to step in and deal with the unexpected – from losing a CEO and having to act as interim leader while initiating a crucially important recruitment process, to dealing with difficult or inappropriate behaviour by other trustees or acting as spokesperson in a PR crisis situation.

Photo by The Coach Space on Pexels

The relationship between the Chair and CEO is the lynchpin that determines the success or otherwise of a charity and getting that relationship right must be a key objective for any Chair (as well as the CEO). In times of great challenge, or simply when a charity is going through a period of major change, then stakeholders will inevitably look to the Chair for oversight and direction. This is a time for the CEO and chair to work closely together or if that is not possible then the Chair must be prepared to take on the leadership role and guide the charity through the turbulence.

Whether taking on chairmanship for the first time or whether well established in the role, it can be very useful to have access to someone who can act as a confidential and objective sounding board especially when dealing with new, challenging or complex situations.

Charity Mentors works with Chairs as well as CEOs and we can enable you to develop your thinking and problem solving in many different ways.

Here are just some examples of how we have successfully supported Chairs to:

  • Consider obstacles or issues from different perspectives
  • Develop a clearer understanding of the role of the Chair and board in a small charity
  • Separate governance from operational matters
  • Ensure trustees maintain effective oversight
  • Improve the quality and decision making of trustee meetings
  • Recruit and retain committed trustees
  • Seek ways to fully engage all trustees
  • Develop a positive and productive relationship with the CEO
  • Develop a strategy, including preparation for a strategic away day
  • Work through unexpected and difficult issues

We can promise absolute confidentiality from an experienced mentor whatever challenges you are facing whether as a Chair, Co-chair, Vice Chair or Chair-designate.

To get in touch you can email us at: info@charitymentors.co.uk

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During the lockdowns, staff have been scattered, volunteers may or may not have been able to work with you and, most crucially, opportunities to interact with service-users will have been more limited (although some organisations have learnt more about the people they work with than ever before!)

In our last newsletter, we talked about reimagining the future. The need to adopt a positive mindset: “Why not?” rather than “yes but..!” There will have been changes in the way you have worked over the last year and you might want to adopt some of these changes with implications for who, how and how many people and places you can reach. There will have been changes in the external environment as well. Some of your partners may have changed the way they work, or there might be new partnership opportunities. The funding scene has changed. Looking at opportunities to innovate, improve and improvise (adapt to the changing environment) are all important parts of a strategic review.

Coming back and coming together - time for a strategy review!

However, there is another aspect of a review that is equally as important. It can be a great opportunity to bring people back together again and for everyone to draw breath, re-group, reflect and re-energise. It’s been a tough year. That needs to be acknowledged. Celebrate what has gone well (or better than hoped for) and think about how to tackle some of the challenges ahead. You can only do this by involving everyone in the process.

Responsibility for strategy rests with trustees but, whatever the starting point, involving people in the future of their organisation and giving them a meaningful stake in its future success has to be a good thing. This includes staff, volunteers and, most important, service users. They are the reason for the existence of your organisation!

Often, what prevents many organisations from doing this is the fear that decision-making will become cumbersome and discussions will take too long and go around in circles. Whilst strategic decision making by a small cabal might seem more efficient, it is rarely successful. If you would like help with thinking through how best to execute a strategic review which is inclusive and relevant to everyone touched by the organisation, get in touch with Charity Mentors Oxfordshire. We would love to help!

You can email us at: info@charitymentors.co.uk

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One of our mentors, Grant Phillips, shares some practical thoughts on how to approach the coming months….

If there’s one certainty in life right now it’s that the future appears full of uncertainty.

So where do we go from here?Photo by Mark Fletcher-Brown  on Unsplash

Just before the summer break as we emerged from lockdown, our attention has been focused on the sheer scale of the unforeseen and unwelcome repercussions of the pandemic. The negative implications for cashflow, employee/volunteer safety and wellbeing and numerous other tactical issues have rightly been front of mind for us all in the charitable sector.

With that work well in hand, and as many people return from holidays and children return to school, my concern for us now is to pause and reflect upon the potential impact on our charitable enterprises of not just the pandemic but also the implications of a serious pending recession and the arrival of the economic consequences of Brexit. As leaders and trustees of charities in Oxfordshire, such a “triple whammy” demands our attention.

So, where do we go from here? A few points for us to dwell on:

  1. The magnitude of this change means we need to adopt a mindset that does not seek to reinstate the norms of the past, but to “reimagine the future”. This becomes a positive mindset of invention rather than a daunting task of negativity. “Why not?” rather than “yes but…!” becomes the frame of mind that drives that invention.
  2. With the mindset firmly set, “reimagining the future” of the charity becomes about strategic direction:
    • What is our strategic “direction of travel”?
    • What are other charities doing that needs to be evaluated as part of our strategic deliberations?
    • Does our strategy deliver resilience in the likely event of further “shock”?
    • Do we have a compelling proposition that demonstrates outcomes that add value to those we seek to help?
    • Do we have the right human resources and operational design to deliver that value?
    • Does this differentiate us and thereby attract loyal and sustainable funding?

Whatever the specific strategic deliberations, the starting point is the need for all of us in the Oxfordshire charitable sector to make sure that we build our “reimagined future” as a team who collectively own, energise and commit to that game plan for the betterment of all those that we seek to support in these challenging times.

If you and your team would like some support in doing this with someone who can energise the process, help you to clarify your thoughts and bring some focus to your deliberations so that they can be transformed into a practical way forward, please do get in touch with Charity Mentors Oxfordshire. We are here to help!

You can email us at: info@charitymentors.co.uk

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If you’ve recently been unsuccessful with a grant application, “what do funders want?” is a question you might well be asking! Although funders will give feedback – and if they don’t you should ask for it – the truth is that often feedback is quite general. If a funder has a lot of applications, yours might have been a strong candidate, but not quite strong enough. A well regarded Oxfordshire organisation that we were speaking to recently made the following observation after being turned down for a grant from a large funder:

The feedback was really the usual: many applications and others were more financially stable. I even had a talk with one of the Relationship Managers but I am still no wiser as to what we could have done or said apart from having more people in post and more funding, which was why we were applying!

Research carried out by the Good Exchange last year, found that that only two in five funding applications are successful 1 and nearly two-thirds of the funders they spoke to had seen a recent increase in the number of applications they receive.

Knowing what funders want is absolutely key. The same research from the Good Exchange also found that 20% of grant applications didn’t even make it past the first post because they didn’t satisfy the funder’s criteria. So, a complete waste of time and effort for the applicant.

The Good Exchange is trying to improve the situation by using technology. They provide a platform for charities and voluntary groups to post details of funding requirements and are encouraging funders to come on board to avoid fundraisers having to complete multiple applications for different funders. It will take time for this to reach the critical mass that makes it a real flyer but it is a step in the right direction and the more people who use it, the more effective it will be.

Our video of Martin Wilkinson from Oxfordshire Community Foundation’s (OCF) Step Change Fund explains what Step Change is looking for from its applicants. Many of his comments have general relevance and would apply to most funders, so it would be worth a watch.

Some interesting insights into the funding landscape for the Oxfordshire charity and voluntary sector can be gleaned by visiting the 360Giving website. 360Giving has persuaded 119 different funders to provide data on who they have given grants to and for how much, in a form that makes the data relatively easy to aggregate and to build a picture of the funding landscape in a particular area or for a specific charity or sector. All the big funders for Oxfordshire are giving information, including Oxfordshire based Oxfordshire Community Foundation and Oxfordshire City Council (but not yet the District or County Council) as well as the big funders such as the The Big Lottery and BBC Children in Need. The table below shows grants for 2018 (the last year for which full data from all funders is available) from the four largest Oxfordshire funders. The Big Lottery Fund dominates the scene in terms of the value of the grants that were given (more than £3.5 mn in 2018 and this excludes grants to schools and the University), whilst Oxfordshire Community Foundation dispersed more grants in Oxfordshire (we have excluded organisations outside of Oxfordshire) than any other funder, with a total value of just under £1 mn.

360Giving (GrantNav): Grants given by the big funders to Oxfordshire Charities in 2018
FunderNo. of GrantsTotal ValueTop 3 Recipients 2018
The Big Lottery Fund75£3,502,805Camerados, Home Start Banbury & Chipping Norton, Thames Valley Parntership
Oxfordshire Community Foundation (OCF)138£957,139 RAW, Ark-T Centre, OXPIP
Oxford City Council40£790,861Oxford Citizens Advice Bureau, Oxford Community Workers Agency, Rosehill & Donnignton Advice Centre
BBC Children In Need6£361,906Pegasus, Sunrise Multicultural Project, Together With Migrant Children

There is funding out there, so to avoid becoming one of those three in five or 60% of funding applicants that are unsuccessful, be sure to find out what your funder wants, before spending (on average) 8 hours completing a grant application. With organisations typically completing 33 separate grant applications per year, this equates to 264 hours spent applying for funding 1, time we would much rather spend with our beneficiaries.

1Interviews with 100 UK grant making organisations and 191 online responses from fundraisers.

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How much time do organisations spend agonising over their ‘straplines’? And how much of an impact does a strapline really have? The strapline for Charity Mentors Oxfordshire is ‘clarify, explore, plan’. These 3 words, and the order in which they appear, sum up our approach to mentoring and the time spent by us agonising over them helped us to establish what our approach to mentoring is all about.


The order of the words was more contentious than our choice of words. Surely you need to ‘explore’ with a mentee, before you can ‘clarify’? And once you’ve clarified, you can plan. Shouldn’t it be ‘explore, clarify, plan’?

The answer to that is no! A CEO/manager or chair is probably exploring options, mulling over challenges and juggling with various issues on a constant basis. The day-to-day demands of running a charity often leave little head-space for getting a clear picture of where the organisation should be heading, what you want to achieve in the long run and what the priorities should be. Many of our potential mentees approach us with a ‘funding issue’. But that needs to be unpacked. It’s like a business saying, “we don’t have enough customers”. What’s behind that? And what are the most important factors contributing to the lack of customers (or the lack of funding)? What is within your control? What is not? Achieving clarity from the beginning is vital. It is where a mentor (particularly because they are an ‘outsider’) can be really useful and stop you going around in circles.

It was really helpful to step back and get independent support to reflect and plan. My mentor used his mentoring skills to help clarify my thinking, and his previous experience of being a CEO as well as chair of trustees was very helpful. He helped me see the necessity of prioritising to reduce/avoid being overwhelmed and I am now being much more boundaried in my approach to the work.

Oxford City Farm


It’s only when the scope of a mentoring project has been properly identified, that you can start to think about the options. These might involve ideas for solving a problem, although mentoring isn’t only helpful in solving problems. Many of our mentees use our help to develop opportunities, to grow and to think about effectiveness. There is usually no shortage of ideas but, in a world of scarce resources, the issue is where the focus should be. So, exploring the various options with a mentor helps to narrow things down on a rational basis. Again, the presence of an ‘outsider’ can be helpful in so many ways. They can question long-held assumptions that might be redundant, they can challenge prejudices, trigger new approaches, encourage you to call-on support from other stakeholders, to use your existing resources more effectively and also help you to hold on to what is working.

Working with a mentor allows time to reflect on where you are, what needs to be affirmed and what needs changing. The mentoring was very informal and yet very effective. Each time we met we found fresh ways to explore and tackling issues as well as keeping hold of the original aim. I appreciated the listening ear and the way in which my mentor asked the right questions and allowed me to think aloud.

Blackbird Leys Adventure Playground


‘Plan’ is about putting it all together. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a written plan. It’s the ‘getting it done’ part. Sometimes, our mentors work with an organisation that has already developed a plan, but something is blocking the execution. It might be that the plan is unrealistic, or not properly understood or believed in. It might be that the ‘day-to-day’ keeps getting in the way, in which case, a mentor might be able to help ‘unblock’ whatever the problem is and help you to hold you and your organisation to account. A regular meeting with a mentor can be a great way of setting the clock ticking and moving things forward.

Our mentor helped us develop a clear plan and focus on the areas that were important in a coherent way. We now know what we need to achieve and how we may do this. Before we had ideas but nobody to bring them all together and highlight the priorities for our vision.

Red Kite Family Centre

Mentoring the Charity Mentors Oxfordshire way

Our strapline ‘Clarify, Explore, Plan’ not only helps us explain our approach to mentoring, but the exercise to come up with one stimulated discussion between us about what we are trying to do.
Does your organisation have a strapline? If so, how does it help you achieve your aims? If you don’t have one, why not? Let us know in the comment box below:


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We’re busy analysing our feedback and other data to produce the next Charity Mentors Oxfordshire Impact Report (coming soon!). We’ve already noticed that a common issue that crops up for our Charity Mentors is that of financial resilience. Many charities and voluntary organisations feel their situation is quite the opposite – an almost permanent state of financial precariousness! And even if current funding for your organisation looks reasonable, it takes an act of boldness to take on more costs or more commitments in order to expand the organization and take that next step.

But what do we mean by “financial resilience”? If it means the ability to keep going for some unspecified time into the future, you only have to walk down the high street to see that this is not guaranteed for any organization whether commercial or third-sector, large or small. Small independent restaurants in Oxford pop-up and, often as not, pop-down. And large organisations are as vulnerable as small: Carillion, Toys R Us, and Pound World are just a few of the big names that have disappeared over the last year or so. Personal insolvency was at a 6-year high last year (https://bit.ly/2v18Rbc). No organization is so successful, so powerful or so dominant that it can guarantee it’s existence. Resilience is about building defences against shocks which hit the organisation and force it off its trajectory.

What makes financial resilience even more challenging for many third sector organizations is that they are reliant on relatively few sources of revenue, so if they lose one of them, it can be disastrous. They are not dissimilar to many commercial organizations who rely on one large customer for their revenue. The idea that any organization can guarantee its financial sustainability is a myth. But making your organization less exposed to the risk of financial melt-down is achievable.

What would be top of your list of the things that you require to make your organization more financially resilient and robust? We discussed this at a recent meeting of our Charity Mentors and this was our Mentors’ “top 5”. How does it compare with your own thoughts, and is this where your focus truly lies today?

1) Governance and strategy: The overall responsibility for financial resilience is ultimately with the board but, in reality, it has to be a shared responsibility, so the management team must share in its building and delivery. The important thing is that financial resilience and sustainability should not be abdicated to the CEO/manager or a “fundraiser”. There needs to be financial competency and clarity around the offering/story/strategy.

2) Financial literacy embedded in the organisation: It’s important that everyone understands the numbers and that some key metrics are chosen for closer investigation. It takes more than a cursory examination of the budget at board meetings. How much does it cost your organization just to keep the doors open (core costs)? What are the costs of each separate project/activity? Is there one activity that is being heavily cross-subsidised by others? If the organization had to close, how much would it cost to give your staff the time to look for something else and for beneficiaries to make alternative arrangements (reserves)? Is there a Plan B to manage the risk of anticipated events not turning out the way you had hoped?

3) Real partnerships and strong relationships: Develop and nurture relationships with funders, potential funders and partners. Be proactive. Give feedback. Keep them informed and show them that you can give them a return on their investment in you. Build a partnership where possible and go beyond what you are asked for. Keep them close. They are looking for causes that interest and inspire them. Make your pitch bespoke and think about “why us?”. If you get turned down, consider going back. If you get one-year’s funding, consider asking for 3 (whether it is offered or not).

4) Diverse sources of funding and efficiency in delivery of services: Look for diverse sources of funding if you can but don’t continually reinvent yourself so that you “chase the money”. Partnerships and alliances can be a creative way of sharing financial risk. Think carefully about cost efficiencies in delivering services – be realistic about what you are able to offer. Be bolder in asking people to pay for services, it doesn’t necessarily mean asking beneficiaries to pay although you need to explore all options – think creatively about generating revenue from the services of the charity.

5) Think it through!: And, maybe we would say this, but get yourself a mentor so that you can talk through how you are approaching the challenge of building resilience and managing risk – that you are not missing something important – and that you are focusing scarce resources on what is important and you can do more than survive, but actually thrive, and maybe take the next step!


Do get in touch with Charity Mentors if you would like to share your experience or leave feedback:

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Things are changing so fast, an organization needs to be nimble and pick up on opportunities. A strategy can stifle innovation.

We’re a small organization. We rely on a couple of key funders. We’re very focused on what we do and what we provide. We have limited resources and we’d rather use them to deliver what we need to deliver rather than unrealistic “blue sky” strategic thinking. We know what works.

We took weeks to put together our strategy. We involved all our stakeholders, looked at the options, fleshed out a direction of travel and had just finished putting the finishing touches to a business plan that looked at focus, funding and resource use for the next 3-years when we heard that our lease wasn’t going to be renewed, our chair had a heart attack and our biggest funder was going to reduce spend with us by over 50% in the coming contract. So our strategy became irrelevant.

At Charity Mentors we know that many organizations don’t devote the necessary time to strategic thinking, and we think this is partly because they think the time spent is of limited relevance compared to the day-to-day challenge of keeping the show on the road. Or to put it another way, the effort required to keep the show on the road means strategic thinking tends to get squeezed out!

Whilst the quotes above seem to mitigate against the idea of spending time on strategy, this article shows why, in each case, strategy is still relevant, no matter how fast moving the circumstances or how small the organization.

The real value of strategy is in the thinking and discussions it necessitates and the people it brings together. It starts with the “why?” (“Why do we exist as an organization?” For instance, we’re not here to “run a community hall”, we’re here to “bring the local community together so we can help each other, especially the more vulnerable members of our neighbourhood”). And moves to the question of “where do we want to be in 2-4 years’ time?” If the “why” is compelling, the answer won’t be “the same place as now”, however big or small the organization! It might not be about being “bigger,” it could be about being better or doing things differently: ensuring focus whilst grasping an opportunity and/or navigating some major challenges.

A good strategy goes on to identify the various options and the two or three most important challenge(s) that an organization faces [and a challenge can be an opportunity or a threat!] and provides an approach to overcoming/exploiting them. Strategy involves focus and therefore choice. There will be options but it’s as much about what we are not going to do as what we are going to do.

This means that a long list of “things to do” is not a strategy. Often when a group of stakeholders get together, they all suggest things they would like to see accomplished. Rather than focus on a few important items that would address the challenges that have been identified, the group sweeps all the different suggestions into a strategic plan. But this is a “wish list” not a strategy.

The Strategy Process

There is no substitute for a good strategy. Developed and “owned” collectively by trustees and managers, and reviewed regularly, it provides an agreed pathway that guides board thinking and decisions. Equally important, it provides clarity, direction of travel and (critically) job content for the CEO, whose day-to-day role is thus aligned to the purpose and direction of the organization.

Small organizations need to think about their purpose, direction and future challenges that will require focus and resources, just as much as larger organizations. If the chair has a heart attack or the lease doesn’t get renewed (as in the earlier quotation), this doesn’t necessarily mean a strategy has become irrelevant. The “why?” and where you want to be in 2-4 years’ time probably won’t have changed. It might mean changing day-to-day priorities but the purpose and direction of travel remains focused as it is on delivering a service that meets the needs of the people whose lives we are helping.


  • The essence of strategy is to answer the questions. “WHAT IS OUR PURPOSE AND HOW DO WE PROPOSE TO DEVELOP IT IN THE COMING YEARS?”
  • That requires a CLEAR AND AGREED FOCUS on our target group, the people we want to help.
  • The BOARD IS RESPONSIBLE for articulating the strategy, which informs and shapes the role of the CEO.
  • The strategy is an AGREED STATEMENT OF PURPOSE, not a wish list.
  • It DEFINES A PATHWAY over a 2 – 4 year period: “WHERE DO WE WANT TO BE?”
  • The strategy DEFINES THE RISKS and mitigating actions that need to be managed.
  • The strategy recognises and evaluates the challenges and MAKES CONSIDERED CHOICES.

Having an outsider to help structure the thinking, challenge ideas and, where necessary, to help channel behaviours in a productive way is often a very good idea. Feel free to contact info@charitymentors.co.uk if you would like to discuss using a mentor in this way.

Do get in touch with Charity Mentors if you would like to share your experience or leave feedback:

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Good leadership is important in any organisation, and the relationship between the Chair and the Chief Executive is pivotal to success. When it works well things can fly, but when there are problems life becomes very difficult. This is a particular problem for small organisations as so much is riding on getting this right.

Chief Executives of small charities often don’t have another senior member of staff to turn to and Chairs may not have a sufficient skill base amongst their board to provide sufficient support. When times get tough the pressures can mount and it may then only take something small to trigger a crisis.

At Charity Mentors we find that whatever the presenting problem, mentees often have issues and tensions with this relationship, sometimes because someone is new to the role and lacks experience or understanding of the sector, but also when there are challenges on the horizon that increase the risks or require a different approach.

This made me interested in looking at how people made this relationship work in a practical sense and I used this as the focus for some research as part of my recent MSc. Past studies have tended to look at the components of good relationships or the way the roles are split but there is relatively little about what is actually going on under the surface and I was keen to glean tips from others’ experiences.

I interviewed a range of experienced Chairs and Chief Executives and many themes were common to all, for example the importance of trust, mutual respect and good communication but what was more interesting were some of the things that don’t normally get included in checklists of good practice.

These include the importance of getting to know how the other person ticked and being willing to accommodate them in a climate of mutual respect; finding ways to understand each other’s (often unspoken) expectations before something blows up and, on both sides, really understanding the balancing act that the other is carrying out.

The underlying dependencies on both sides were about trust and the things that get left unsaid. In many senses this goes to the heart of the unwritten psychological contract in any relationship and if there is a mismatch or misunderstanding in this unspoken ‘deal’ then there will be trouble ahead. Working with a mentor can help to unpick some of these issues, and as ever, once things are out in the open they become much easier to deal with.

Top tips for Chairs include:

  • Make sure that you invest time in really understanding the organisation – this may take much longer than you expect
  • Be prepared to flex your role over time
  • Think through your values and assumptions and make these clear early on, and recognise the potential impact of your Chief Executive’s unspoken feelings about the role

Top tips for Chief Executives include:

  • Be prepared for your next Chair to be different to your last one
  • Recognise that your chair is a volunteer and you need to go some way to accommodating him or her too
  • Think through what pressures you are under that aren’t in the job description or those where you think the Board doesn’t understand them and try and make these explicit

Do get in touch with Charity Mentors if you would like to share your experience or leave feedback:

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